Sunday, October 26, 2008

At the Beep, You May Leave a Message

So much has been written about dialogue without making the essential argument that it has less to do with conversation than it does with dramatic incident. 

 There are any number of inspirational, witty, and memorable utterances, ripostes, and pithy exchanges from literature and drama, confidently brought forth at times of public celebration, where there is felt to be a need for eclat and the verbal equivalent of a champagne cork popping. Some of these actually work out of context because they or their creators are so well known; the rest of them tend to fall flat or require some introductory type of cheer-leading.

Dialogue taken out of context often doesn't work, not because it is dialogue but rather because it isn't conversational speech. When two characters exchange lines, they are in a better sense fencing, other times clanking broadswords, at still other times trying to seduce or co-opt, but always with some form of dramatic agenda. 

 A practical way of looking at agenda is to see it as a particular character's long- and short-term goals, the possibility being in place that said character has no long-term goals with the present relationship, another possibility still that one of the characters is indeed looking for a long-term relationship with the other while that same other might have no plans in mind other than tonight.

We look at the art of dialogue as a distillation of what individuals in real life would say in such situations, if they had sufficient time and other necessary resources to create a tighter scenario. But in real life we are more conversational, coded, and to complete the alliterative triad, class conscious, which leaves us with lessons to learn from our observation of real life.

Think about informal responses, which are usually one or two words. What's up? or the luxurious, How goes it? Some of us patronize individuals we feel superior to (a wonderful set-up for reverse humor), speak more loudly to individuals whose native language is other than ours (in the belief that the loudness will help them understand English, for heaven's sake), and have code words or gestures of affection for intimates. 

 We're more likely to use contractions and incomplete sentences in everyday talk. We're less likely to use subjunctive or conditional tenses, and we abuse such tropes as like for as. With some friends, we complete their sentences and/or expect them to complete some of ours for us.

True enough, dialogue represents characters talking; it also represents visible progress a character is making toward solving a problem or being swallowed up by a problem or denying a problem exists when we as readers are aware that the contrary obtains. Dialog is a milestone on a path to some form of confrontation, either with reality/inevitability, or with another character who is an opposing force or a transformative force. Not all stories end as Hamlet ends; some end with weddings or escapes or successful ventures in the arts, sciences, or politics.

If dialogue is approached with the same care employed in creating a character, the specifics contribute simultaneously to development and complication of story as well as development of the character uttering the dialogue.  

At this point, the dialogue begins to sound plausible because the characters have become so; we readers and viewers have begun wrapping the traits supplied by the text around the armature provided by the author's depiction of what that individual does while in action and repose.

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